Eighty years ago on the 3rd of February 1942, the Japanese were on the warpath. It is hard to imagine, and yet they held sway in China and the other countries of the Far East for years. When Singapore fell, it was easy for them to cross over to Kalimantan (then Borneo) where the troops landed on 24 January 1942. They were after the oil and naturally wanted Sumatra as well. And that was the place where my father Kees drilled for oil. The threat to the former colony of the Netherlands, the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia), was enormous. The Netherlands itself was also nervous about the threat of losing its precious raw materials, but the country was occupied by the Germans.
On this day eighty years ago, my parents got married. On Sumatra, in Lahat to be precise. They knew each other for a year, had spent six weeks together in Bandung where my mother Els lived and where Kees was on leave. When he had to return to the oilfields they started writing, for months. Letters of 15 pages were quite normal. They were in love head over heels and wanted to get married. They agreed to do so before Christmas 1941. When the Japanese destroyed the American fleet on Hawaii on the 7th of December 1941, life changed overnight.
In my book Kind van de koloniën (Child of the Colonies) published in November 2021, I write about their lives and I would like to share this passage with you.
From Kind van de koloniën
The letters from Els and Kees follow each other in rapid succession and are mainly about the daily happenings and stuff with friends and colleagues. The weeks pass, but the longing for each other does not. The language Kees speaks is un-urban. The daily activities of my mother in Bandung contrast sharply with life in the jungle of Sumatra, where they toil in the heat and where the threat of war is most noticeable due to the limited freedom of movement and the repetitive military exercises they are called up for. During these weeks, plans are feverishly being forged. Birdie and Wim (Els’ parents) want to leave for South America and Els wants to go to Lahat to get married and preferably today. At last she succeeds.
When all necessary paperwork for the marriage is done, Els travels to Sumatra, this time to Lahat and on the 19th of January 1942 she takes up residence in Hotel Juliana.
Lahat is not a large town, but it does have that allure. There is a civil registry, a resident and it has a real hotel. The town lies at the foot of a mountain range. The railway line runs along the mountain range from East to West Sumatra. And here too it is like in Bandung, when people want to go out for a day, they travel to the mountains to find the coolness. There are plenty of hotels there to spend a weekend. Els lives in a daze. The world news is trickling in and the Japanese are getting closer. They land on Borneo on the 24th of January 1942 and occupy the oil fields of Balikpapan and Bandjermasin. And yet, it amazes me every time again, life on Sumatra and Java goes on as usual.
Kees was given 2 x 24 hours special leave to get married. The sober wedding took place on the 3rd of February 1942. Els dressed in a simple white dress, he in a borrowed uniform – his was dirty – and on borrowed black shoes. For the wedding photograph.
They spend those 48 hours in one of those cool places in the mountains: in Pagar Alam. There, the foundations for a life are laid. Not even the first wedding night could prevent that. Somewhere in the archive I found a note from Els saying:
“The little hotel where we were was completely surrounded by high mountains. It was very cool. I found that very threatening at the time, especially because that first night together was a complete fiasco.“
Just before the wedding day Els receives a letter from her mother, sent from Bandung on February 1, 1942.
Yesterday morning I received your letter, which was immediately answered by Daddy. So I wrote you twice and Daddy once. Did you receive everything? Your letter was very hasty, nervous and unclear. Child, don’t let yourself get nervous. Take it easy, as G. Wavell always did. Don’t let a possible bombing upset you, that awaits us all. Take cover and keep yourself covered in all respects. Remember cotton balls and chewing gum, if necessary a rubber band. Only when traveling becomes difficult, you leave immediately.
You know, from my dream, that’s where all your difficulties come from, but I think that’s over now because last night I saw you doing something, a whole pot full of it and that’s very good. And you know my dreams. Oh, and another thing, on board of the ship (making the cross over from Sumatra to Java), make sure you wear your bathing suit under your easy to take off clothes. Don’t forget it! I came up with this idea because the son-in-law of Mrs. Van Ommen was brought here yesterday. Is doing well now, but has 3 gunshots. Saved himself by parachute and then, after swimming for 4 ½ hours, was picked up by a raw. What a lucky boy he was. Have you tried the two pieces of advice from my last letter? I am sure you will succeed. Just signal me the probable date of the wedding. As long as S (presumably Birdie means Sumatra) keeps well, things will go well there too. But don’t drag it out too long.
The husband-to-be of Petra van Doornum is coming on Sunday. Getting married on Monday and leaving on Tuesday. Everything is and will be just as prosaic at the moment, but wait, it won’t be long before you can repeat it in poetry. Not ‘short but sweet’ but bitter but let us hope short, at least not for an unbearably long time.
You have now had a book of advice from us. As Daddy wrote, bring Bep [Moen] if she wants to or if she wants to stay with her husband while he is around, she can always come later. Rather insist that she comes with you. We will do our best for her as well.
Now Els and Kees, I hope that your heart’s desire will still be fulfilled before the end of time and wish you all the best. Please keep us informed about everything! That leaves a lot to be desired.
Cheerio, be brave and as op-ti-mis-tic as possible, without becoming carefree.
Love and kisses your mother.
The sober marriage, Els’ hasty departure in order to be back in time in on Java with her parents in Bandung and the fact that Kees was heavily injured less than three days later, mark the beginning of more than fifty years of marriage. A marriage that only began in 1946 after many years of Japanese camps and repatriation to the Netherlands. That’s when the real adventures began. 350 pages were hardly enough to cover their lives.